What’s in your Wine?

Well, fermented grapes, of course, but is there anything else in the bottle you should know about? These days, when almost all food products have detailed lists of ingredients and allergy warnings on the labels, it’s perhaps surprising that all you get on most wines is the simple message ‘contains sulphites’. For some mysterious reason, wine is exempt from many of the labelling requirements that other foods and beverages must comply with.
So, credit to the Co-op supermarket chain who voluntarily list the ingredients on all their own label wines. Take their ‘Irresistible (their description, not mine!) 30° Pinot Noir’ from Chile’s Casablanca Valley (£7):

apart from the expected Pinot Noir grapes, it contains tartaric acid – a common adjustment when grapes are harvested for extra ripeness – plus 3 ingredients to help ensure the wine reaches you in good condition: an antioxidant (nitrogen), a preservative (sulphur dioxide – hence the ‘contains sulphites’ message) and a stabiliser (cupric citrate).

It also goes on to tell you that a small (125ml) glass contains 98 calories – useful information for any weightwatcher – and that it’s suitable for both vegetarians and vegans.
And then there’s a comment ‘made using oak staves’. This is something that most producers don’t want to tell you – not because the staves are harmful (they’re not), but because it destroys the ‘mystique of the barrel’ – the idea that the oak flavours that many of us enjoy in our wines come from the wine resting in one of the rows of oak casks we’ve all seen at many wineries.
The truth is that these casks are expensive (typically around £750 or $1000 each) and using them for wines that are going to retail at under £10 a bottle doesn’t make economic sense. There are 2 cheaper alternatives: either gathering off-cuts from the barrel-making process into a giant ‘tea bag’ and suspending that in a tank of wine or, better, using oak planks or staves in the same way. It’s this 2nd method that the Co-op are telling us about on their label.
Oh, and I’ve been so busy blogging about the label, I nearly forgot to comment on the wine. It’s rich and mouth-filling and brimming with cherry and plum flavours. Not over-complex but very drinkable and, for just £7, a very good buy.

Solving a Mystery

I’m not easily persuaded by a smart wine label but, every now and then, I get drawn in.  Especially when there’s an element of mystery about the wine.  So, when I saw the bottle above in Grape and Grind recently with the starry label proclaiming ‘Objet Viticole Non Identifié’ (unidentified wine object), I was intrigued.

Grape and Grind, like many wine merchants in these Coronavirus affected times, ask customers to try and avoid picking up bottles they are not likely to buy so all I could tell from the front label was the grape variety (Chenin Blanc, which I like) and the producer (J.Mourat about whom I knew nothing).  But Grape and Grind are normally reliable, the wine wouldn’t break the bank (£14.99) so why not try?

Closer inspection made me even more interested; the label bore no vintage date and only the vaguest hint of its origin – Val de Loire (Loire Valley).  I learnt that Objet Viticole Non Identifié (OVNI for short) is the producer’s name for wines that he considers “anti-conformist,” – different from what you might expect. A mystery, indeed!

The wine itself was all I could have hoped for – and more: clean, fresh and quite tangy with lovely green apple flavours, an attractive creaminess in the mouth and a long, smooth finish showing lots of ripe fruit. An ideal aperitif but also good with lighter fish dishes or poultry.

I dug deeper to unlock the mystery.  The grapes are grown close to the coast just south of the Loire River, roughly halfway between Nantes and La Rochelle.  It’s an area that could attract the obscure Appellation Contrôlée Fiefs Vendéens, but Mourat, probably wisely, chose the more recognisable IGP (formerly Vin de Pays) Val de Loire instead.

The vineyard is organic and the wine is vinified in the now-fashionable egg-shaped concrete tanks (see picture below).

The idea of these, according to Jancis Robinson MW, is that the shape offers a high level of contact between the wine and the lees, reducing the need for batonnage (stirring) and encourages convection currents that improve fermentation kinetics. 

An explanation almost as mysterious as the label but who cares when the result is as good as this.

Re-thinking Chilean Wine

If I say ‘Chilean wine’ to you, what springs to mind?  Personally, I think of wines that are approachable, easy to drink, fruity, reliable and good value for money.  And UK wine lovers seem to agree – Chilean wines are big sellers here, particularly in the supermarkets.  But, do you see what’s missing in my description?  Nothing about wines that are exciting, challenging or innovative.  That’s not quite how I see Chile.

Part of the problem is that their wine industry is dominated by just 7 giant producers who, together, are responsible for over half of Chile’s wine.  By good marketing and a consistent product, they have secured a top 10 place among UK wine importers but, as a consequence, much of their offering is just a little bit safe.

But a piece in the latest Decanter magazine (labelled October) suggests that things are beginning to change.  Chile’s producers are expanding into new areas of the country, experimenting with different grape varieties and looking to produce more complex, age-worthy styles of wine.

The article prompted me to dig out a bottle from one of those 7 producers that I bought some time ago from the Wine Society (£14.50 at the time) and has been sitting quietly under our stairs ever since.   20 Barrels is one of Cono Sur’s premium labels and my bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon was from the 2013 vintage, making it just over 7 years old.  So how had it aged?

I decanted it to find that the colour was still deep and vibrant, no sign of the browning rim that might show that it was past its best.  On the nose, quite fresh and fruity, with the blackcurrant aromas so typical of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape together with a few earthy, dusty notes.  The same followed through in the mouth with some plum and cassis, good intensity reflecting the 14½% alcohol and a little pepperiness and some spice from the well-integrated oak.  It had good length and the wine was still fresh and clearly with some years ahead of it yet (although not for me – I only had the one bottle).

So, time to re-think Chilean wines?  Perhaps.  At the entry level, the wines are easy drinking and good value for money but stretch a little upmarket and wines like this 20 Barrels definitely promise a good future if this is the direction in which Chilean wines are heading.

An Unusual Blend

For a wine lover, Spain has everything – well almost!  From attractive fizz to delicious, crisp, dry whites, sweet-fruited satisfying reds and a unique range of fortified wines.  But you won’t find all of these styles all over Spain; Spain comprises 17 determinedly autonomous regions, each growing its own particular grape varieties and frequently producing distinctly different wines from its neighbours.

One of the most independent-minded of these regions is Catalonia, the home of Spain’s Traditional Method sparkling wine, Cava, as well as many innovative and dynamic producers – Miguel Torres springs readily to mind.  But Catalonia also has many smaller, lesser-known estates offering distinctive high quality wines, often based on unusual blends of grape varieties.

One such estate is Parés Baltà with vineyards in the hilly Penedès district, west of Barcelona.  Here, they grow an assortment of grapes following biodynamic principles – a sort of super-organic regime that I have explained in more detail in past blogs.  The all-female winemaking team have created an interesting product range including a delicious red, Mas Petit (Corks, £15.99), made from a blend of Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, that we enjoyed recently.

I decanted the wine an hour before drinking revealing a lovely deep, ruby colour. The nose, a little dumb at first, soon opened up giving aromas of red cherries, dried herbs and toasty vanilla. To taste, the wine was quite soft and very approachable, concealing the 14.5% alcohol well.  There was a hint of subtle vanilla spice from 7 months in older French oak barrels but the main impression was of vibrant red and black fruits and a delightful herbiness. 

Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon may not be the most common blend of grapes but here it worked well with, perhaps surprisingly, the soft richness of the Grenache taking centre stage ahead of the usually more forward Cabernet.  Food match? Pretty versatile, I’d say, but we teamed it with some roast duck legs coated with an aromatic spicy rub.  Delicious!